March 18, 2018: Rev Anna Fulmer
We are going ahead in time. Palm Sunday might be next week, but here, in the Scripture it has happened. Before this passage in Mark, Jesus has paraded into Jerusalem. He has cleansed the temple. Right before this, in the temple the chief priests, scribes, and elders come to Jesus and question his authority. Right after, in the temple, Jesus tells this parable and flips the accusations onto them. Let us read now from:
Imagine this: you live in a culture where everyone owns land. In fact, your family was given a piece of land when they came into the Promised Land. It was part of God’s promise to you and to all of the other families and tribes. Everyone farms. You grow everything you eat, and most years, you grow enough to survive. But one year crops did not come in properly. There was no rain, and so your crops shriveled and died. So you borrowed some food from your neighbor a few miles away; you worked for someone else. But then the next year was a bad year and then the next. Eventually, you are in major debt. You cannot pay back all of the food and seed you have borrowed. You become a debt slaves, working on a neighbor’s land then tending to your own late at night. But you refused to sell your land; your land is sacred. It is a gift from God. It is more than just land. The only way you will get out of debt is through your land; it is your only hope. But eventually, the wealthy start taking the poor’s land, amassing big properties, and building big farms. Vineyards. They started growing cash crops, like grapes for wine, olives for oil—foods that were for the elite. And so, because of your debt, your land is taken. You have no hope; no future. You have no more rights; there’s no way to make enough to survive working on another person’s land. With little hope, what would you do?
This was the reality for many in ancient Israel. In order for us to understand this parable, we have to know a little bit about the economics of Israel and of another vineyard, the Lord’s vineyard in Isaiah 5. Jesus takes Isaiah’s image of a vineyard and twists it. In Isaiah’s time and Jesus’ time, injustice is all around. The wealthy start taking the poor’s land. It caused a huge disruption in the economics laid out by God originally, and it started major forms of exploitation. If you had no land in Israel, you could not get out of poverty. Because wealth is tied to land. Fewer and fewer peasants owned land, and so they become further degraded and victimized.
Both landowners in Isaiah and Mark are wealthy and their wealth comes at the price of another’s suffering. A man in Israel could only acquire land to build a vineyard by taking it from someone else, by foreclosing on the loans of poor peasants. And only the wealthy would plant something like grapes. You must wait four years before vineyards will begin harvesting grapes good for wine. This man in Mark has power; he has money; he has time. This vineyard used to be someone else’s land, and now they probably are working on that land, their land, just as a debt slave or sharecropper. How hard would that be! I would want to rebel too and get my land back! Isaiah speaks out against the people for what they are doing to God’s vineyard—he warns them that God will make this vineyard, their vineyards into wastelands, because “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:7).
Everyone in Israel knew about these practices of taking the poor’s land. They also knew who was wealthy enough to own these large vineyards—people like the chief priests, elders, and scribes. These three groups are the “institutional trinity,” and all of them are present for this parable. These people are powerful; they are the educated of the society. They are wealthy. And they have achieved this wealth through taking the land, the birthright, the livelihood of a peasant. Their plan in coming to Jesus is to expose him, but the tables are turned in this parable and Jesus exposes these leaders’ fake piety and practices.
It’s pretty obvious who is who in this parable. God plants a vineyard. He leases it to tenants, to the priests, elders, and scribes. I wonder if the people of Israel could even be this vineyard, the harvest. When it is time to collect a share, God sends slaves, prophets. Over and over the prophets are ignored. The tenants refuse to share. They refuse to give to God what is God’s. They do not do justice. “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isa 5:7). These prophets are beaten, insulted, and sent away empty handed. Some are killed. Finally, God sends his beloved son, “They will respect my son.” It seems like a ridiculous idea. If these angry tenants have killed your slaves, of course it is not going to end better for your son! And so, the tenants thinking that they will secure their own power and prestige and their right to Israel, they kill Jesus. They throw him out of the vineyard, without even a proper burial.
At this juncture I am sure everyone listening was breathless. Jesus places the religious elite, the landowners in the place of the lowly tenant. He reverses their situation. He demotes them. He says over and over they disrespect the land, the Scriptures, the people, and God through their treatment of the people and the land. They claim to be holy, but they have forgotten what God says about justice–treating your neighbors with respect, helping the poor, giving back land in the year of Jubilee, and more. The abuse of power in the old order needed to be critiqued, and so Jesus does. “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isa. 5:7). Everyone would have known what Jesus was talking about.
At this point, Jesus ask, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” The world’s answer is the first answer that Jesus gives—its almost a rhetorical answer–“He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When tenants rebelled, this is what the powerful did. They squash the rebellion. They kill the insurgents. This is how the wealthy landowners like the scribes, elders, and high priests treated their tenants. If the parable ended now, it would be a parable of retribution—a life for a life. When tenants rebel, kill them. If it ended this way, the parable might be called “the parable of the vengeful landowner.” But Jesus does not end with that answer. Instead, he offers an alternative to the violence that we see in our world, the cycle of violence that the crowd, scribes, priests, and elders were living.
The stone is rolled to the forefront. Jesus says, “Have you not read this scripture, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes?’” The stones that are cast off, murdered, and forgotten, the stones that are deemed unworthy, the stones that seems too small, too poor, too unruly. They are the cornerstone. Our rejected stone, Jesus is restored and redeemed. It is set-apart for an amazing purpose. God intervenes in our violent world. God says, enough. God takes the bloody and battered stone, and God redeems it. Here we see, that “God preferred an Israel in the image of a man who died on a Roman cross because the leadership of his own people feared the kind of Israel his life and work envisioned.” Jesus offers a future portrait of Israel and its completely different than what it has been.
In a single story, Jesus tells the story of our broken and violent world. He charges the leaders in being involved in it, and he predicts his own death at the hands of such violence. In just one more chapter, he will predict the destruction of the temple, stone by stone. All will be gone. But this violence is not the last word. God takes the wreckage, and builds something altogether new. From the wreckage, the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone.
God expects justice today. Yet still, there is bloodshed and crying. Many people in our world are riddled under unsurmountable debt. Many in our world live paycheck to paycheck. Many do not have enough to eat. Many barely make enough to survive working someone else’s land. Through this parable, even our own country and world’s economic practices are examined and critiqued. God is watching how we treat God’s vineyard, our neighbors—those suffering and rejected. May we be honest about our shortcomings and failures. May we recommit to doing God’s justice—even when it comes at a great price. “For the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Let us trust in our cornerstone, our rock and redeemer. Amen.